“It felt weird,” Maria Carroll said Tuesday after voting for the first time in her life.
The privilege of casting a ballot was not something this 70-year-old Holocaust survivor took lightly.
“I’ve waited a lifetime to vote,” she said. For 60 years she had a green card before becoming a U.S. citizen two years ago.
“It didn’t take me very long to vote,” she said while standing outside of Westwood Junior High where she cast her ballot, with her husband, Marty Carroll, and their oldest son, Greg.
There was an obvious sense of pride and patriotism not only in Maria, but in her husband of almost 50 years.
“I’m very proud of her and all she’s endured during her life,” Marty said about the event that he described as a highlight of their lives.
Maria’s journey to casting her first-ever ballot has been a long and tough one.
She was born in a Russian concentration camp during World War II on Feb. 26, 1942 in Tajikistan, which was part of the Soviet republic at that time.
“My mother was arrested by the Russians for being a spy for the Allies when she was pregnant with me,” Maria explained. Her birth father, whom she never knew, was a submarine commander who went down with his sub.
Her mother, Halina Kaluski, was 100 percent Jewish but was able to pass herself as anything but, with her blond hair and blue eyes, according to Maria. She also spoke five different languages fluently, including Russian.
“Her whole family was killed by the Nazis,” Maria continued. “So the Russians saved her life by arresting her.”
After Maria’s birth, she and her mother remained in the concentration camp a couple of years before they were traded.
“When (Joseph) Stalin and (Winston) Churchill traded political prisoners of war, we were traded and sent to Israel (Palestine),” Maria said.
Maria didn’t find out that she was half Jewish until she was in her 20s. She herself spoke four languages — Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew and Arabic.
Born in a concentration camp during World War II, Maria’s birth records were lost. She and her mother, who married Steffan Kaluski while Maria was still young, moved around quite a bit.
Maria attended preschool in the Middle East before moving to England when she was in grade school.
“I know my mother did something for the Allies,” Maria said. “Because we were dirt poor and had no income. But I was sent to a private school, a Catholic convent. It was the best, most expensive school in England and the tuition was paid for by the Polish government-in-exile based in England.
“Talk about being poor, we would be lucky if we had a chicken at Christmas,” Maria continued. “Everything in England at that time was rationed. We survived by the grace of my mother, who scrubbed toilets and cleaned houses.”
During this time, her stepfather, who held several degrees, was accepted to the University of Liverpool because he had to take the last two years of his studies over. He got his British doctorate in veterinary medicine and the family moved to Canada where he opened a large animal practice.
Maria attended high school in Canada before her family was “sponsored” to come to the United States by one of her mother’s friends.
When they were living in England, her mother’s best friend moved to Detroit, Mich., Maria recalled. The bold Halina wrote a letter in Polish to a newspaper in Detroit, asking them to print the letter in the paper telling her friend that she had enclosed a personal letter to her that would be at the newspaper office until she could pick it up. In the letter, Halina asked her friend to sponsor them to come to the United States.
“Back then, if you could get someone to sponsor you to come into the country, it would save you years of having to wait for approval to come,” Maria explained.
It was her stepfather’s work as a veterinary government meat inspector that brought them to Ottumwa, Iowa.
Maria attended the University of Illinois and worked at the University of Illinois Research and Educational Hospital’s nursing office.
It was while she was living in Ottumwa that she met Marty.
“I saw her driving down the street in her new car with her red hair and a scarf and I made a U-turn and followed her,” Marty recalled.
Maria added, “I had just gotten my convertible and my mother asked me to go to the store to get something for her. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the store was closed. So I’m driving home and I see this pink Oldsmobile coming toward me.”
That pink car followed Maria home and parked in her neighbor’s drive.
“I saw him and thought, ‘That’s a good looking guy,’” Maria recalled. “Five minutes later, my mother’s friend across the street called me and said, ‘Maria, Marty Carroll wants to meet you.’”
That day, they were properly introduced by her neighbor.
The attractive, petite redhead, however, already had two dates for that evening, one was a date to play tennis while the other was a dinner date.
Maria kept the tennis date but canceled the dinner date.
“The whole time I was playing tennis, that guy in the pink Oldsmobile watched,” Maria smiled.
“She had a good backhand,” Marty responded. “She’s a good tennis player.”
They were married four months later, on Dec. 29, 1962.
The Carrolls will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month, on Dec. 29.
The Carrolls lived in Chicago for 20 years, before moving to Denver where Marty worked security with the FAA at the Denver airport and Maria worked as a truck driver for Walmart.
When they moved to Palestine in 1997, Marty worked for the National Scientific Balloon Facility in security. He now works for the Walmart store. Maria transferred as a truck driver for Walmart and is in her 17th year as a driver. The lively and petite woman would like to retire in the next couple of years.
“We moved here to be closer to our kids,” Marty said, adding that their sons both lived in Jasper at the time. Oldest son, Greg Carroll, is a horse trainer and lives in Palestine. Their son, Chris Carroll, works in the oil business with American Disposal, and still lives in Jasper. The Carrolls have two grandchildren, Patrick, a Marine serving in Afghanistan; and Lacie, a high school student in Jasper. Maria also has a younger, halfbrother, Andrew, who still lives in Illinois.
Both Marty and Maria recall the day in February 2010 that Maria applied for her citizenship at the U.S. Immigration Naturalization Office in Irving, Texas.
“When I went in to apply for my citizenship they said they needed my birth certificate,” Maria recalled.
“I don’t have one,” she told the clerk, who searched through a large records book only to find that there was no record for Maria other than when she came into the country as a legal immigrant.
The clerk at the INS office, after learning of Maria’s story and desire for citizenship, told her and Marty to go to lunch and return at 1 p.m., when the next swearing in ceremony was to take place.
“She told me, ‘I want you to become a citizen today,’” Maria recalled.
A few hours later, when they called those born in Russia to stand and become U.S. citizens, Maria promptly stood up. She was one of more than 160 people that day who received their Certificate of Naturalization.
“It was a proud moment,” Marty said.
It was a moment that could not have been possible without the hard work and determination of her mother. Maria knows all too well of the sacrifices her mother made.
“I never questioned her about anything, I never gave it a thought,” she said. “She was my mother and we were very close. I really regret that I didn’t question her.”
She believes her mother, who died at the age 57, was a spy for the Allied Forces during World War II.
The significance of the act of voting that some take for granted and others don’t even exercise is not lost on the Carrolls, especially Maria. She doesn’t plan to pass up an opportunity to take advantage of her right to vote in the future.
“Here we are in Palestine, Texas,” Maria said as she looked around. “I voted for whoever I think is the better person.”
“It felt weird,” Maria Carroll said Tuesday after voting for the first time in her life.
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